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Sunday, May 27, 2018
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Editorial: This past weekend’s traffic woes a reminder of need for transit options

A few potholes shouldn’t create the gridlock experienced by motorists heading into Tampa this past weekend. But that’s what happens when commuters and tourists are left with no choice but to climb behind the wheel of a car when attempting to get from point A to point B.

Workers on what seems to be a never-ending widening project on Interstate 275 were forced to close the eastbound lanes near the West Shore Boulevard exit beginning Saturday night. Faulty asphalt caused further lane closings Sunday and into Monday.

For tens of thousands of commuters, baseball fans and tourists heading from St. Petersburg to Tampa, the lane closures meant delays of 30 minutes to an hour or more as vehicles crept along Tampa’s major corridor, burning gasoline that costs upward of $3.60 a gallon. Motorists hoping to avoid the Howard Frankland Bridge spilled onto the Gandy Bridge, causing delays there too.

Episodes such as these make the case for diversifying mass transit options far better than any marketing campaign. The daily traffic misery could be lessened by rapid-transit buses, dedicated commuter lanes, a ferry service across Tampa Bay, and future rail lines connecting major commercial and entertainment hubs in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

Critics who say those fixes won’t appreciably reduce congestion on the roads are missing the point.

Diversifying transit presents options, many of them more affordable and more conducive to a better quality of life than being stuck in traffic for a couple of hours every day. It also spurs economic development and makes the area more attractive to visitors.

Motorists need to remember delays such as these when their local leaders seek support for mass transit initiatives in the coming months.

In Hillsborough, a transportation policy group is expected to unveil a plan in late June that will identify the areas in Tampa Bay where transit options make the most sense. From there, public input will be gathered to form a comprehensive plan. A referendum might be held in March or November next year that would seek funding approval.

In Pinellas, voters will decide in November on a plan to raise the sales tax by a penny to expand bus service and build a rail line connecting Clearwater and St. Petersburg. We think the plan is a good investment in the future of Pinellas, the most densely populated county in the state and a major tourism draw.

Already, there are promising signs that the area is preparing to diversify.

The state has agreed to dedicate space along a rebuilt Howard Frankland bridge for a rail line that could connect Pinellas and Hillsborough counties one day.

A massive Tampa International Airport expansion might include an automated people mover connecting the airport with the Westshore district.

And Hillsborough County is studying a proposed ferry service between MacDill Air Force Base and the southern part of the county, home to thousands of people who work on the base.

Diversifying transit options isn’t going to eliminate massive traffic jams that result from road work.

But it will provide more choices, which can make life more convenient and economical, and position the area to handle the new growth that is sure to come.

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